Aldridge Rushes Return As Blazers Struggle
After an incredible start to the season that saw the Portland Trail Blazers exceed all expectations, the team has dropped nine of their last 13 games and slipped to the fifth seed in the Western Conference.
While other West contenders such as the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers and Houston Rockets have played some of their best basketball in recent weeks and seem poised to enter the postseason with momentum, Portland has struggled mightily. Making the playoffs seemed inevitable weeks ago, but now the Blazers are just two and a half games ahead of the ninth-seeded Phoenix Suns.
The Blazers have dropped games against non-playoff teams like the Orlando Magic and Los Angeles Lakers this month, and they needed overtime to defeat the league-worst Milwaukee Bucks. After Tuesday’s loss to Orlando, Damian Lillard said that this was the low point of the season and Robin Lopez wondered aloud if the team understood the importance of this final stretch.
Meanwhile, LaMarcus Aldridge has had to watch the team’s struggles from a distance as he’s nursing a back contusion that has sidelined him for seven straight games. The injury occurred on March 12, when Aldridge’s back slammed to the floor after a collision with Spurs center Aron Baynes. The team clearly misses Aldridge, who is averaging 23.4 points and 11.1 rebounds this season. He’s an integral part of Portland’s attack on both ends of the floor, filling the stat sheet and creating opportunities for others.
The star power forward wanted to play on Tuesday against the Magic, but had trouble running prior to the game. He’ll try to practice at full speed on Wednesday, facing contact for the first time, and then attempt to return for Portland’s game against the Atlanta Hawks on Thursday.
“I wanted to play tonight, but I can’t run,” Aldridge said following the Blazers’ loss to the Magic. “So if you can’t run then what do you do? I’ve been wanting to come back. I didn’t think it would take this long, but it ended up being more serious than we thought it was. I’ve just been trying to get back out there. It’s a process and we’ve done everything that we can do, the medical staff and myself. I’m going to work out tomorrow and see how it feels. … I’m trying to go no matter what [on Thursday]. If I look good enough to play, then I’m going to play. It’s on the medical staff.”
Aldridge’s mobility has been the biggest issue as he tries to come back. The back contusion is limiting his movement, which has kept him from getting back on the court.
“It messes with your running,” Aldridge said. “The last couple of days have been better, so that’s been positive. … It’s gotten better. The last two days it has been better, but it’s not normal. I still had a discomfort running and that’s why I wasn’t out there, I couldn’t really move. But the last two days have been great.
“It’s not really my game that I’m worried about, it’s just being able to move. I mean my lateral quickness seems fine, it’s just running. I hit that spot, and when you flex back your glute, it touches that spot that I really knocked hard on the floor, so that’s my only worry.”
Having to sit back and watch the Blazers drop game after game has been hard on Aldridge, and he admits that he’s trying to get back from injury as soon as possible because of the current state of the team.
“It makes me want to play even worse, yes it does,” Aldridge said. “But it’s not about me, it’s about the medical staff and when they say I can play. I’ve been wanting to play, but honestly if you can’t move then you can’t play. … It’s been hard because I know what I can help with at times, I’ve seen areas where I can make guys’ life easier out there. I know at times they can use what I do, so it’s been hard to watch. But I had to do it, I had no choice. I’ve tried to take what I saw and tried to store it in my memory so when I start playing again I know what I saw and I make sure I don’t do it. I can’t sit for long periods of time [watching the games], so I’m up and down, talking to the TV, pacing around, things like that.”
When asked what’s wrong with the Blazers, Aldridge said that he thinks the team is worn down.
“Guys are tired,” Aldridge said. “It’s a tough road trip and our shots aren’t falling right now. Guys are competing and playing hard and playing the right way, it’s just guys are just tired. Hopefully I can come back next game and try to help out with that. Guys are playing hard, it’s just our shots are not falling and guys are just tired. … [I can tell from the] body language. Guys are trying, but they’re, like, one step slow. I know guys want to win and I know all these guys work hard, it’s just we are one step slow.
“There’s a sense of urgency to get wins, as there should be. We definitely let ourselves slide too far. We all want to get wins right now and we understand the magnitude of trying to trying to take care of business right now, so I think everybody knows the importance of winning. … I’m trying to stay in the moment. We need wins. I want to get healthy. I want to play again. That’s my main focus right now.”
The three-time All-Star hasn’t been vocal during Portland’s slump, letting the players on the floor figure things out while he’s recovering.
“Not really, it’s tough; [I feel like] if you’re not playing then you don’t do too much talking,” Aldridge said. “I’ve said things to certain people, but I haven’t been very vocal since I’ve been out because if I’m not out there battling with you then I don’t feel like I should be saying too much.”
Aldridge was sidelined with a groin injury in February, and it took him awhile to get back into a rhythm once he returned. He doesn’t believe that will be the case this time around, since he has been able to stay active while he has been out.
“I’ve had more time this time to work out,” Aldridge said. “Last time, I went from nothing to full speed to playing. This time is more of a transition period of ‘let’s see you run, let’s see you shoot.’ So I’ve worked out the last three to four days, it’s been more stationary shooting and minimal movement. I’ve had more time to really find my rhythm. Last time I went from sitting on my couch and I couldn’t move to playing. This time has been more of a transition period, so I think I’ll be fine.”
The Blazers are 45-27 and if the playoffs started today, they would face the Rockets in the first round.
Pacers Concerned About Recent Slump
For much of the season, the Indiana Pacers have been a juggernaut and clearly the best team in the Eastern Conference. While they still sit atop the East with a 51-20 record, the team has been playing poorly lately, struggling on the offensive end and dropping seven of 14 games in March.
After adding Andrew Bynum and Evan Turner last month, it seemed like the Pacers were going to take their game to another level and solidify themselves as arguably the best team in basketball. That hasn’t happened, as Indiana’s offense has sputtered and the team has entered their worst slump of the season.
“It just seems like we’re not clicking,” Roy Hibbert told USA TODAY’s Jeff Zillgitt. “We should be clicking right now toward the end of the season.”
“Our execution isn’t where we want it to be,” Paul George said. “We’re nowhere near where we want to be as far as screening, setting guys up, moving with some energy and cutting off the ball. Everything’s just lackadaisical. That’s going to get you beat.”
The Pacers’ points per game and shooting percentage have dipped in March, and the team is scoring 99.4 points per 100 possessions. Indiana’s offense is 22nd in points per game, and it’s clear the players are concerned about how they’ll fare in the postseason with such a glaring hole.
“I just look at other teams’ play and they just swing, swing, swing the ball and somebody gets an open shot or a wide-open layup,” Hibbert said. “How do we get those types of shots where we don’t have to heave something up at the end of the shot clock? With that type of stuff, you can’t get into a rhythm. It’s just not one-on-one basketball.”
While the Pacers shouldn’t have any trouble early in the playoffs considering how weak the East is, they could run into issues when facing the Miami HEAT or, if they represent the East in the Finals, one of the Western Conference’s contenders.
“If we do get that point [in the playoffs] and face those guys (the HEAT) again – if we do – we have to figure this thing out now because they’re such a good team, they’re going to sniff that out,” Hibbert said.
“We have to do a better job of playing with more energy,” George added. “We’ve just been dead, it seems, on the court lately. That’s not us. We used to be a team that played with a lot of energy. I thought we kind of lost that. … I don’t know what happened to it, where it went, but we’re going to need that because that’s when we’re special.”